An essential upgrade

State Rep. Lee Chatfield and I recently toured the Soo Locks, inviting with us several fellow legislators to show them the inner workings of the locks and demonstrate the need for a new lock at the Sault Ste. Marie facility.

The locks, which were built between 1896 and 1943 and last upgraded in 1968, are vital to the national economy. Each year about 10,000 ships pass through the locks, carrying 80 million tons of iron ore, coal, grain, and other cargo.

Only one of the four current locks can accommodate the size of the massive freighters currently in operation. The MacArthur Lock can only accommodate vessels up to 800 feet, leaving the Poe Lock to handle the massive “lakers,” some of which are longer than 1,000 feet and over 100 feet wide.

A new “super-lock” that would replace the current Davis and Sabin locks was authorized by Congress in 1986 but has since been delayed due to a lack of federal funding. In 2009, funds were provided for preparatory work that built coffer dams at the ends of the Sabin Lock and to dredge the approach channels to the necessary 28.5-foot depth. However, nothing has been done since.

This places the burden of millions of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in commerce on one single lock. If a failure occurred, it would be an economic disaster for numerous industries throughout the U.S.

If the Poe Lock were to go down, there would be no other way for these massive ships to cross. The Lake Carriers’ Association predicts such a shutdown would affect Michigan’s economy so deeply that more than 22 percent of the state’s workers would become unemployed.

A recent study from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also outlined just how drastic the effects would be if the Poe Lock were to fail. A six-month shutdown would close factories across the U.S., resulting in an estimated 11 million jobs lost and sending the nation back into a recession. The amount of iron ore and grain removed from the North American supply chain would halt automobile and food production nationwide and have a negative impact on Canada and Mexico as well.

Though the Army Corps of Engineers is working to mitigate the risk of a shutdown, it has been nearly 50 years since the locks received a substantial upgrade. As the locks age, the probability of failure grows. We need to do more than continue to put Band-Aids on this issue.

Multiple Great Lakes states have approved resolutions urging the federal government to appropriate the necessary funds to upgrade the Sabin and Davis locks because of what a failure could mean for their economies and the entire U.S.

We do not need to continue to study this situation, and we do not need another cost-benefit analysis. Both industry and government officials agree that a failure will be catastrophic. Our state has fought hard to emerge from the recession and we simply cannot afford the risk of falling into another.

Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, represents the 37th state Senate District, which includes Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Luce and Mackinac counties.